‘The Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution’, better known as ‘The Cultural Revolution’, was a communist social-political movement established by Mao in an attempt to revive Communism in China and reassert his dominance within the Chinese Communist Party. Mao’s former attempt at revolution in the form of The Great Leap Forward in 1958 had seen the rapid collectivisation and industrialisation of society, causing economic turmoil and killing over 15 million in the Great Chinese Famine. By 1966, Mao believed the party had been overrun by bourgeois agendas and needed to be saved from the dangers of capitalism and old Chinese tradition. Once again, Maoist ideology was imposed upon the population of China.
The academic elite were possibly the most victimized during the Revolution. Writers, economists, and teachers -any person who was seen to be steering the youth of China in a new, anti-communist direction- was deemed an enemy. Students played a crucial part in the assaults on education; with Mao’s encouragement and mobilization, bands of student youths formed under the name of Red Guards with the ambition to expose counter-revolutionaries and rebel against the authorities were formed. The collective motto of the Red Guards was to ‘destroy the Four Olds’- customs, culture, habits and ideas. Nobody was safe from the Red Guards, and teachers were regularly beaten and made to wear humiliating banners. Many committed suicide after becoming a target of the student movement, and lots more died as a result of the attacks.
Landowners were also targeted by the students, publicly shamed during ‘speak bitterness’ sessions aimed at addressing the grievances of the proletariat tenants. Many landowners were dragged through the streets and publicly executed. The zeal of the Red Guards resulted in the need for the People’s Liberation Army to suppress the movement by 1967, by which point the Red Guards had accrued over 12 million members and were becoming a serious threat to the stability of Chinese society.
As the next generation of leaders, Mao focussed heavily on the youth of China in his revolutionary policies. In 1966, university entrance examinations were suspended as part of a push to encourage agricultural work for youths, and over a million young people a year, including Red Guards, were sent to establish farms or work in existing agricultural communities. Many of the youths had only a primary level education, and instead were expected to ‘undergo re-education by the poor peasants’ to ensure the future backbone of Chinese society knew how to endure physical hardship. Unsurprisingly, this scheme had dire effects on the educational systems and workforce of China in the subsequent decades, leaving a legacy of uneducated youths throughout the country.
The Cultural Revolution was a chance for Mao to re-establish his dominance amongst the other rising elite of the CCP. This began with the removal of key Politburo leaders, such as Mao’s designated successor, President Liu Shaoqi, and Party General Secretary Deng Xiaoping. Only radical supporters of Mao and the Cultural Revolution remained in top leadership positions, and attempts to impede the revolution were easily suppressed. Mao became a cult figure, with his face often shown on posters shining out of a red sun onto his supporters and his quotes compiled into The Little Red Book and distributed to the population. The end of the Cultural Revolution could only be called for after Mao’s death in 1976, by which point the economic and social condition of China was in chaos.
Fifty years on, whilst the BBC publishes an extensive column reciting the stories of those who experienced the Revolution first hand, Chinese news gives the anniversary almost no coverage. Sina News, whilst failing to write an accompanying article, published a Communist party document stating that Mao Zedong, having created the Cultural Revolution “caused the most serious setback and loss for the Party, the country and the people, since the founding of China”. As a newly found economic superpower whose population is experiencing the largest growth of wealth in the country’s history, it is easy to forget the troublesome origins of Communist China; the renowned discretion of the Communist party today makes it likely that many of the longstanding effects of the Cultural Revolution have yet to be unveiled, whilst the details and memories of the tragic events may die with the generations who lived through them.
“Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”
Mao Zedong, 1927